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Muslim ban opponents ask federal judge to allow DIA protests without advance permit

February 15, 2017 Updated: February 15, 2017 at 7:10 pm
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DENVER, CO - January 28: Amal Kassir, a Syrian American, leads the crowd during an immigration protest at Denver International Airport in direct response to President Trump's executive order to ban certain immigrant from the United States January 28, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

DENVER - A federal judge is being asked to consider whether a Muslim travel ban protester's sign calling President Trump an obscenity has the same free speech protections as an airport celebration to welcome veterans

Eric Verlo was told he couldn't hold the vulgar sign at Denver International Airport on Jan. 29, two days after Trump issued a now-lifted executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

He and fellow El Paso County civil rights activists Nazli McDonnell are asking U.S. District Judge William Martinez for a temporary restraining order to allow protests at Denver's airport without the seven-day waiting period that DIA requires for a protest permit.

A protest with hundreds of participants was moved outside the terminal with no arrests on Jan. 29. McDonnell and Verlo went to the airport the next day and held signs protesting Trump and welcoming international visitors. They were mostly alone.

"We were not obstructing passage of the passengers coming out," McDonnell said. "There was plenty of room around us, capable of holding hundreds (more) people if necessary. We were not obstructing anyone."

At the Jan. 28 protest, hundreds of people danced, sang, linked arms and passed around a bullhorn in the area of the Jeppeson Terminal where passengers exit the plane. They weren't blocking the way, however.

Attorneys for Verlo and McDonnell alleged that none of the people who made remarks to protesters opposing their views on Trump and the travel ban were threatened with arrest by Denver police.

Attorneys for the city made points during questioning about the need for permits to control crowd size, ensure enough law enforcement is available and to make sure passengers can get on and off planes safely.

While questioning a young veteran who had participated in two Honor Flight ceremonies for veterans at DIA, the city's attorneys noted that months of planning went into for those events, which were coordinated by the Transportation Security Administration and several airlines.

Before testimony began, Martinez told the chamber that the courts have established that airports are not considered by the law to be typical forums for protest.

"The Denver airport is not a traditional or designed public forum," he said.

Verlo, McDonnell and other protesters were asked if they tried to get a permit from the city at any time, including since they were told they needed one on Jan. 28 and 29. None had, and none of them were arrested. Verlo and McDonnell said they were at the airport for about three hours.

"I wanted to assert my rights and the rights of others to have our message be seen and our voice heard," Verlo said. "I think it's important to stand your ground, because those are your rights, and if they convince you to abandon them, then you've lost them and you've lost that opportunity."

He said police frequently tell protesters they have to have a permit, when that's not true, just to get them to move along,

Assistant City Attorney Wendy Shea read from Verlo's blog about the event, indicating he knew in advance a permit was "supposedly" required to hold up political signs at the airport, referencing the protests the day before.

"I'm writing 'supposedly' because we hear that all the time," Verlo responded.

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